April 25th, 2006
For the past 5 years there has been a consistent flow of posts forecasting the imminent death of the tabletop RPG market. And it is true that year over year, there has been a notable downward trend. 2004 was especially brutal, and the report on 2005 that came out in March, though not as bad as 2004, offered little in the way of hope. Some argue that the most recent decline can be attribute to the large deployments of the military — who many claim are a non-trivial percentage of the market. However, the fact remains that in its now 30 year history, despite its influence on many other game market segments, the tabletop RPG has never left its nich status.
I don’t believe the problem has to do with a lack of market interest. This market has a loyal following — just look at the average yearly spending of DMs or the 25-35 crowd. The market can grow. When presented with well designed and planned RPG campaign, I have seen hundreds of MMO players embrace tabletop style roleplaying and make it the focus of their online time. My own wife — who is about as far away as you can imagine from the role player demographic had a blast doing True Dungeons at Gencon — and wants to go back each year just for that. Admittedly both examples are antecdotle, but the key observation is for this audience of non-role players, something got their attention.
Jeff Freeman provides some excellent analysis on the industries recent decline, but I think the problem is even deeper than what he suggests; it is not simply the recent dominance of D20. I believe the problem is with an industry that has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. Dungeon and Dragons has dominated the tabletop market, and as a result, so has the business model that accompanied it. That business model is one where a the IP is controlled by a single entity, where the primary revenue is generated via rule books and core source books, and supplemental revenue is generated via sub-licensing the right to produce supplements.
The world has moved on from those early days of role playing. There are new models of business and new modes of distribution. But the RPG business model and core channels have remained the same. Its attempts to embrace the changing technology were nothing more than a poor mimic of what it did without the technogy.
Instead of going to a store to run a session, people tried to replace that with email, or chat — and now with Neverwinter Nights. Instead of printing, companies sold the same content electronically via PDF files (I think this thread is an interesting read). None of these methods had a notable impact on the market. If anything, the evolving technolgy was pulling people away.
What is required is a new model of business for tabletop RPGs. An approach I think would be succesful would be to model around the core competencies of Web 2.0 (which I have slighlty modified for the tabletop RPG model):
- Harnessing collective intelligence:
Players are continuosly engaging in game playing or game planning. Provide a simple means to capture their activities in a manner that is accesible, inexpensive, and value added.
- Trusting users as co-developers:
Shift away from licenced IP to community owned IP.
- Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service:
Make it easy for players to add value added tools and system to the core game services and mechanics.
- Services, not books, with cost-effective scalability:
This is the big change. Give the rules and source material away for free. Make that a commodity. Rather provide value added services that ensure that you have…
- Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them:
Capture everything in a single controlled database accessible via the web.
- A system above the level of a single game group:
The effects of one gaming group should have the ability to impact the content of another gaming group.
- Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models:
The services should be built on well understood and familiar tools. The content creation pipe should be more outline oriented vs. today’s novel oriented approach.
By following the Web 2.0 model, we also open up the door to a very important thing: the Web 2.0 market. Those of us passionate about breathing new life into a genre of gaming we love dearly need to leverage the tools and modes of communication this market uses. Doing this will greatly increase our exposure and increase the accesability of our games.
Not bad for a curmudgeon, eh choombah?
Entry Filed under: Games